EDITORIAL State disincorporation laws should be loosened

May 22, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Even though it has a Google corporate campus, top-drawer medical centers, and well-regarded institutions of higher learning like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, it’s widely held that Southwestern Pennsylvania is parochial and stubbornly resistant to change.

The assortment of municipalities spread across the region is a tangible representation of its old-school ways. We are one of the few corners of the nation where a quick trip to the grocery store can mean passing through four or five municipalities along the way.

Residents undoubtedly feel a sentimental attachment to places like Haysville, the Allegheny County borough with its 70 residents, or Twilight, the Washington County borough with 240 residents, but is there really a rational reason for these communities to have a council, collect taxes or, in the case of Haysville, employ a building inspector? It would surely save residents some money if these services were handled by the county or if they merged with another municipality. Meanwhile, all the things that make it a community in the first place – its people, its neighborhoods, its history – would remain intact.

Current and former officials in Allegheny County are advocating for a more streamlined and less cluttered approach to municipal governance. They recently unveiled a report from Pitt’s Institute of Politics that offers a blueprint for municipal “disincorporation” – basically allowing residents to put up a “going out of business” sign and turn municipal functions over to the county.

Many states already allow municipalities to disincorporate, but Pennsylvania only green-lights it in special circumstances. The commonwealth currently allows a municipality to say sayonara only if it is in severe financial distress and has been so for more than five years. The proposal being advocated by current Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and his predecessors, Dan Onorato and Jim Roddey, would let municipalities dissolve based on a referendum and approval at the county level. While residents would still be left to pay the debts of the defunct municipality, the county would take over police protection, tax collection and other duties. Proponents explained at a news conference they hope to convince legislators in Harrisburg that the laws surrounding disincorporation in the commonwealth should be loosened.

The report emphasizes that disincorporation would not affect volunteer fire departments, municipal authorities or school districts.

“By stretching revenue with economies of scale and removing administrative redundancies, the county can deliver efficient and effective services to individuals, families and businesses in former municipalities,” it says.

The report is billed as offering “creative solutions for counties of the second class,” and, it turns out, Allegheny County is the only second-class county in the commonwealth (Philadelphia is the only first-class county. Washington is a fourth-class county, and Greene is a sixth-class county). But when you consider that only Texas and Illinois have more municipalities than Pennsylvania, and municipalities can now only dissolve through mergers and consolidations, the report’s recommendations should be relevant to counties of all sizes across the commonwealth.

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